The question that every game designer wants answered is: what does is take to make an addicting game?
There are just three essential elements that a game needs to begin, which can be found in the question below:
“While playing my game are the gamers having to use skill, risk, and strategy simultaneously during most of the gameplay?”
If the answer is “No” to any of the three, that’s your missing element.
Think about Tetris. Think about Angry Birds. Think about Call of Duty. They are nothing alike, yet they share the same three key elements
So what do they really mean?
SKILL = You clearly get better with practice, meaning you feel and notice your improvement. In ideal terms, you can see that you make more rapid progress every minute you play. It’s a way to balance your gameplay so you could plot graphs to demonstrate the skill, learning, and improvement is really there.
RISK = You know you can get an advantage if you take a risk, and there are plenty of opportunities to take risks. Great games let you get creative with your risk-taking. In every hit game, taking risks is fundamental to the gameplay itself.
STRATEGY = There’s more than one way to get through this, and you need to be able to make decisions and feel ownership when your strategy fails. Great games have gamers immediately blaming themselves for failure and trying a “New Idea” – a strategy. (That’s the addictive loop.)
Homework: If you have not played Tetris, Angry Birds or any other top selling games, I’d highly recommend you take the time. Getting a feel for the market and industry is essential, and without it, it’s like being in the movie business and never seeing Titanic or Avatar. Experiencing (and studying) the best-selling games of all time is required homework for game designers.
CHALLENGE & PROGRESS = Every moment of gameplay you know where you are in respect to your goal(s). Some designers solve this with Mini-Maps or progress indicators, some have pointers to goals, some even tell you distance. Great games let you know in advance what a win is to this challenge. This matters, as it’s much more difficult to get out of your chair the closer you get to your goal. If you have a challenge: “Go destroy that building”, and an overall goal of: “Win the battle”, then strategy can evolve from the challenge as maybe that building is useful to your strategy, but “You’ll win the war”. The key point here is that you then need to know where you are in relation to the building, and where I am in relation to winning the war (every single moment).
BLAME = If you fail or die, you MUST not blame the game, and be clear that it is your fault. The addictiveness dies immediately when you blame the game: “That guy appeared out of nowhere”, “Their bullets go through walls”, etc. If the game seemingly cheated (and it might lead to frustration), you don’t care if I can explain why, it must be fixed. When gamers blame your game, it will bleed the addictiveness right out.
RETRY = If you make it difficult to retry a new idea (meaning to try out a better strategy), like you get put too far back or you force them to watch the same movie clip again, you can massively damage addictiveness. A truly addictive loop has no pain. Check out Tetris or Angry Birds: when you mess up, you try again immediately.
FEEDBACK = When the gamer does something good, let them know! There should be audio/visual feedback when they are doing well. Look at highly addictive games – Bejeweled or Candy Crush – a chain event is special and the game feels more excited when you are completing complex chains. Pinball machines are old now, but frankly, they were experts at feedback, as the game would get more and more excited the better you did, to the extreme with flashing lights, sound, even multiple balls and spinning objects. Think of the game itself as having a heartbeat, and its pulse gets more excited the better you do. Lots of games have a little completion animation when you complete a level, but to be clear, feedback should be timely, not just at the end of the level. Really addictive games have a bit of a mystery just how special the feedback can become, meaning the gamer can get a nice surprise when they do something rare as the game knows it!
REVENGE = Revenge is a powerful emotion and your game can remind players of levels, enemies or even other players they need to concentrate on. It’s tough to quit when you are alerted that a sworn enemy is approaching. Many game design books only focus on “play with friends” and of course, I will mention it soon, but remember there are a lot more strangers out there (millions of times), so if I were you, I’d try to make strangers fun in your game. Revenge is just one small example.
MORAL DECISIONS = Make gamers think about your game even when they are not playing by making them make moral decisions – a fantastic example of this is a game called Papers Please by Lucas Pope. Would you tell a white lie to save your family? Would you keep a couple apart because of a stupid rule? Would you let someone die even if it was just a 50% chance they would die? If you make very important decisions, it’s tough not to want to see what happens next.
SOCIAL = Games can be more addictive if you know that you are incredibly close to either beating a friend or being in a position where they will need your help. The question to ask yourself is “Can I make my game increase the social value of this gamer?” Need an example? Imagine this gamer has “Unobtanium, the most valuable entity in the galaxy” or “a spare pilot’s license” or they know a way through level 3 that can be shared with others: “Here’s the code to that door for the next 5 hours”. If playing is clearly improving your social status, then you are more likely to fire up this game again.
URGENCY = Sales people know that the “Only available today” kind of marketing can cause impulse sales. Ask yourself “What’s my impulse gameplay?” What does the gamer know they should do right now before going to bed because the opportunity won’t be there tomorrow? As an example, if they don’t put out the fire in the burning building, it won’t be there tomorrow. Really want to go to bed knowing the building you care about is burning down? It’s just a dramatic example, but you get the idea: what needs dealing with right now?
MULTIPLAYER = I’ve personally seen gamers apologize when they had to stop playing a game because their friends were depending on them. I’ve seen them type “I’m so sorry I’ve go to sleep, I’ve got a test tomorrow.” This is a great sign that the presence of other people is making the game more addictive to the group. So the question to ask yourself is “How am I getting other people to depend on me?”. Also, “How am I gaining an advantage as long as they are playing with me?” A good example in casinos is the two-seated slot machine, if I win you win, and vice versa. If you leave, I lose potential free wins! Another example is when a player makes an important kill or win, the group shares in the spoils. So can you make it valuable to you personally when friends are engaged as well?
TIME ACCELERATORS = Imagine in your mind you can predict it will take an hour to complete your goal. That gives you the excuse to abort and think “I’ll just try again in the future when I get more time”. So ask yourself, “What do I have in my game to make something that feels constant (meaning time) not be constant?” A simple example is you are walking around but now you have the ability to drive, that changes everything, suddenly time is uncertain, you just know “This won’t take as long as I thought!”, and that’s when the addictive loop is boosted. Another good example is experience boosters to get to the next status level: people want them so much they happily pay for them in free-to-play games. Time is valuable and if you give people a chance to do things more efficiently right now, you have their full attention. As a side note, if you want gamers to care about getting to the next level, just pre-gift them with something cool that they can’t use until they get there. “Here are the keys to the tank… You need to be level 15 to drive it, you are currently level 14.5”. It’s just yet another kind of fuel for the addictive loop.
In order to make a video game addictive, it needs skill, risk, strategy, progress, blame, retry, feedback, revenge, moral decisions, sociality, urgency, multiplayer, and ways for the player to accelerate.
However, if a game developer is to bypass one or more of these attributes, there is a single piece that often saves them.
THE SECRET SAUCE
The secret sauce to video games is humor, yes, even in serious games. Humor is the most difficult thing to do, so it doesn’t have to be “laugh out loud”, but the gamer should feel amused. I often ask if Angry Birds would be a hit if it was called “The Catapult Game” (without birds exploding etc.) If you can add any humor to your games, you immediately step away from your competitors, as it’s a lot easier not to try. Humor entertains males and females, so you can double your audience when you entertain both. Was Angry Birds or Tetris made for Males or Females? Aha!.
I hope this helps in the discussion of addictive game development techniques. Using these simple elements can help a game to become the addictive success that it deserves to be.
Thanks Thomas Hughes for updating this post.
This post originated from DP’s Book on Game Design. Available at Amazon.com